My name is Jimmy Alexander Faria Albanese. I’m a tenure-track Assistant Professor in the faculty of Science and Technology at the University of Twente (UT), where I work on the development of different catalysts for the sustainable production of chemicals.
A winding but productive path
The route I’ve taken to get here has been a bit of a winding path, both geographically and thematically: I’ve focused along the way on a number of research areas. But they’ve all had one thing in common: a focus on making our planet more livable.
I’m from Venezuela, and that’s where I did my bachelor’s. One research topic I focused on for my degree was how polymeric hydrogels can be used to absorb heavy metals and thus remove them from drinking water.
I moved to the United States in 2008, where, for my PhD I looked at how catalysis could be applied to water-oil emulsion systems, so that bio-oil could be used as an alternative in fuels and chemicals. And there was a bonus: the results of my research served as a steppingstone for the creation of a USD 10 million program, funded by the US Department of Energy, on catalytic emulsions. It was great to see that the theoretical work I did could have meaningful practical applications.
My journey took two new turns in 2012: I moved to Spain, and I also switched from academia to industry, going to work in the R&D department of Abengoa, a multinational whose mission is to create innovative technological solutions for sustainable development in the infrastructure, energy, and water sectors for the sake of people and the planet. I led multiple projects on biomass conversion to added-value products.
I valued the opportunity to work in industry, where you can see ideas go from drawing board to implementation. But I found I was still missing the research side of things, so in 2017 it was back to academia again to explore my own research ideas in the production of sustainable chemicals and in energy carriers.
Here at UT, my research group is focused on exploring structure-property-performance relationships among catalysts that are relevant to the production of green chemicals and energy vectors. We combine detailed kinetic studies, the characterization of catalysts, kinetic modeling, and process design to identify the most suitable solutions—all with a view to helping accelerate the energy transition.
And there’s an overlap between those efforts and the work my team and I are doing within the Amazing project: we’re striving to develop fundamentally relevant relationships between, on the one hand, the performance of catalysts in terms of activity, selectivity, and stability and, on the other, the composition of various materials and operating conditions. We’re now finalizing our screening of catalysts, and we hope to be able to begin our experiments on membrane catalysis in the near future.
This project started from the discussions we had with our partners Arian Nijmeijer, the Principal Science Expert at Shell, and Wilhelm Meulenberg, Head of Department Gas Separation Membranes, Institute of Energy and Climate Research, at the Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany (both are also professors here at UT).
We were interested in how we might decarbonize energy-intensive cracking processes. We were keen to narrow down the pathways to the use of membrane catalytic reactors for the production of olefins.
A lot of birds with just one stone
The benefits of this approach would be legion. For instance, it would allow us to:
- shift the chemical equilibrium of the reaction thanks to the removal of hydrogen
- electrify the process through either electrical heating or proton pumping
- cut the carbon the footprint of a plant, since the membrane reactor hydrogen can be readily separated from the product stream, thus obviating the need to remove the hydrogen otherwise, which can be really expensive
- minimize the recycling stream, because the conversion from each pass through the reactor can be pushed to higher levels
The outlook is quite positive. I’m pretty confident that the project will lead to important scientific and technological advances regarding the application of membrane reactors to alkane dehydrogenation, and thus help to decarbonize the chemical industry.
The project in the bigger picture
Technologies focusing on sustainable carbon and nitrogen cycles will be essential in the coming years to making the energy transition happen.
By helping electrify the chemical industry, these technologies can help reduce the C-intensity of existing industrial processes. That is sure to be a key focus of research in the near future, because we still do not have economically viable alternatives to conventional processes. There are a number of options here:
- switching to electrical heating
- electrochemical conversion
- replacement of petroleum-based feedstocks to bioderived streams
- increasing upcycling of C-streams (i.e. plastics and CO2)
Ammonia synthesis will require new developments around the low-temperature activation of nitrogen in order to facilitate the down-scaling of the conventional Haber-Bosch process. That process has been hugely important in two ways: on the one hand, it has made ammonia fertilizer widely available and has thus played a huge role in providing food security for millions. On the other, though, it accounts for about 1% of the world’s total energy production, and results in the emission of hundreds of millions of tonnes of CO2 every year, more than any other industrial-scale chemical reaction.
But ammonia’s important for another reason too: it can serve not only as a fertilizer, but as an anergy carrier, so it can offer a lot of options for storing and valorizing renewable electricity.
The ISPT as a facilitator of change
I’m pleased to be involved in this cutting-edge research: it’s both intellectually interesting and it shares with my earlier work a focus on people and the planet. But I’m especially pleased that ISPT is also involved: a few months into my appointment here at UT, I attended its annual conference, and I have to say I was impressed by the large number of representatives from industry and how varied and open the discussions were. ISPT plays an essential role in the process industry in the Netherlands, facilitating cooperation between industry and academia. I hope it continues to play that role as we work together to drive the energy transition and help build a truly circular economy.